This past February, Danielle Kurtzleben’s article, “Grade-school teachers can push girls away from math, with huge consequences,” appeared in Vox, speaking to some very important and, tragically, very widespread misconceptions regarding the gender “math gap” in education. According to Kurtzleben:
“A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that something else might be at work here shaping the supposed ‘choices’ girls and women make. It shows that young girls’ teachers have biases that push girls away from math and science early on, which could be influencing where they go later in life.
Economists Victor Lavy from the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom and Edith Sand from Israel’s Tel Aviv University looked at Tel Aviv sixth graders’ test scores both on standardized tests and internal tests in Hebrew, English, and math.”
In this research, Lavy and Sand tested to see if there was any difference in test scores if the ones responsible for grading the tests knew or did not know the test-takers’ gender. Their results clearly suggest the existence of a “systematic bias against girls in the marking of math exams.” And as Lavy and Sand followed their sixth-graders through the eighth grade and high school, they found that “those early teacher biases led to significant improvements on the later math exams for boys and negative and significant effects in math for girls.”
Of course, as Kurtzleben also points out, “this is a working paper, meaning its results are preliminary, and it studied students in a different culture and school system, so we can’t assume US students would see the exact same magnitudes of effects” (emphasis added). However, what’s most important about this research now, as Kurtzleben explains, is that it shows how powerfully “socialization takes hold early on” as well as showcases
“the power of biases — discourage a child from pursuing a subject, and she will, years later, later perform worse on that subject (encourage her, meanwhile, and she’ll do better). So when you discourage a whole swath of the population from pursuing high-paying fields, all those people will be much more likely to have lower-paying jobs.”
What does this mean for us in the here and now? What does it mean for us as parents, teachers, and/or fellow students? It means constantly interrogating ourselves and our assumptions. It means asking ourselves hard questions before we hand back that test or agree with our daughters that Yeah, math really is boring or Yeah, math is super hard, when we might be telling our sons, Yeah, but you can do it or Yeah, but you want to be a marine biologist one day, don’t you? The insidious evil of sexism is that you can sometimes be adding to the problem and perpetuating old sins without ever realizing it or meaning to.
This is a trend and social failing that should both greatly concern and anger you, for your sake as well as for the rest of the world’s. After all, as Kurtzleben so well explains:
“This isn’t just a problem for women; it’s a problem for society. This study suggests that girls were just as capable as boys at math at the start of the observation period, but they were slowly pushed away from math. To diminish an entire demographic’s talent at once is to squander their potential productivity, and economic growth.”
If we want to one day live in a better, more just, more equitable, and more peaceful world, then there’s really no better or easier place to start than right at home with the editing, improving, and monitoring of our own attitudes, perspectives, and actions. The hard truth is, we will only have justice and equality for all when we begin treating others justly and equitably.
All quotes and facts here were drawn from Danielle Kurtzleben’s Vox article, “Grade-school teachers can push girls away from math, with huge consequences.”